Records management is one of the most typecast and poorly branded professions I know. This is old news to anyone working in the profession. You know colleagues regard recordkeeping as dull and tedious, and the people who do it as introverted, detail driven and therefore dull. There is a refreshing clique of humour that has grown within the profession. However outsiders find it a mystery why people pursue recordkeeping as a profession or find it interesting.
Records management is a field I entered accidently, as many do. Our role was to provide technical skills. To do so it is essential to understand why recordkeeping is important. That led to passionate discussions, interesting discoveries and a new perspective on the world, and continues to expand my world each day.
Today’s need to convert every employee into a dedicated recordkeeper is challenging. Frequently we use ‘scary stories’ to explain the importance of recordkeeping to the masses. Stories of poor recordkeeping leading to financial disaster, death or loss of reputation all provide a powerful motive for people to keep records and keep themselves out of trouble. Yet when we look back at our own experiences it’s easy to find personal examples of recordkeeping acts undertaken in a variety of roles that have added value to our own lives and our society. The three examples included, and I could list many more, have all increased my value and respect for records.
THE GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEE
On a visit to the National Archives a few years ago I picked up a book called “Footprints: The Journey of Lucy and Percy Pepper” that took me to the core of the value of records management for everyone. Through a collection of early 20th century correspondence between the Pepper family and the Public Record Office Victoria it tells the story of the family’s struggle to stay together at a time when laws and government policy defined who was ‘Aboriginal’ and who was not. Apart from an explanation of the laws of the time there is no carefully woven story around these letters, there is just the bare correspondence demonstrating the inhumane segregation and inequity that controlled the lives of full or part Aboriginal people.
In today’s terms this would be routine correspondence within any government department. Viewed as isolated documents each one is low in value. The fact that a diligent and probably many diligent, record keepers registered and stored each document enables us to piece together a factual story. That story read from today’s perspective and values provides shocking, irrefutable evidence of poor treatment. The records prevent the past being dismissed and allow us to understand and address a fragment of the history of the Aboriginal race.
The Japanese city of Nagasaki was the second city hit by an atomic bomb in WWII. Nagasaki today is completely re-built and, apart from the memorial sites and museum, shows no evidence of the impact of the bomb. The museum houses a collection of twisted metal and shattered objects that fail to show the full devastation of the bomb. One, because the majority of the devastation was so dramatic everything was reduced to ash. Secondly, because the physical and emotional devastation for survivors continues to this day.
In 1970 the Nagasaki Testimonial Society was created. The society realised the stories of survivors was in danger of becoming hearsay, and as with many people who suffer tragedy, their experience had not been documented. Between 1970 and 2010 they collected 1017 survivor testimonials that told the life stories of these people in their words. Thirty varied stories were compiled into a book “Voices of the A-Bomb Survivors Nagasaki”. In doing so their aim is to provide a legacy of records that ensures future generations fully understand the impact of atomic bombs, even when all physical evidence has disappeared.
I did think it was probably a little crazy when looking at a 5th century BC bronze in the Shanghai Museum to think “Wow, metadata!” The beautiful, intricate bronze pieces dated back to the 16th century BC, and many were inscribed with the craftsman, his workshop and the date as a minimum. Whilst stamping these details on important artefacts has a long history it is astounding to realise how early it started.
It’s doubtful that the artisan realised that nearly 4000 years later these simple inscriptions of facts would help piece together the history of the world. It also demonstrates recordkeeping is a natural act for most people. People have always been and continue to be today, compelled to record information in words or pictures.
Recordkeepers, formal and informal, throughout history have much to be proud of. The facts and knowledge collected ensure we understand the past and are empowered to make better decisions for the future. Record managers have an important role to play in continuing this tradition.